Sunday, October 19, 2008

Who would you be?

One of my favourite authors is Malcolm Gladwell. He writes non-fiction; so far primarily within social sciences - psycology and sociology mainly. He has written three books: The Tipping Point (2000), Blink (2005) and Outliers (not out until later this month). He is also a journalist for The New Yorker.

Blink, the only one I have read so far was incredible [postscript: just finished The Tipping Point and Outliers see end of this blog for a brief update]. Gladwell describes the book on his website to be...

"a book about rapid cognition, about the kind of thinking that happens in a blink of an eye. When you meet someone for the first time, or walk into a house you are thinking of buying, or read the first few sentences of a book, your mind takes about two seconds to jump to a series of conclusions. Well, "Blink" is a book about those two seconds, because I think those instant conclusions that we reach are really powerful and really important and, occasionally, really good."

Although the above doesn't give much away, it hopefully provides an idea of the subject material he writes about. Within Blink alone, he draws on numerous fascinating examples to illustrate his ideas- each of which could be a story in themselves. He is very gracious- although a very original thinker himself, he never looks for praise or recognition of this, merely lifts other authors, scientists, artists etc. up on a pedestal and manages to convey just how interesting and incredible their findings are. He has a rare ability to explain complicated ideas and theories to the layman, perhaps only second, in my eyes to Richard Dawkins, who I am sure I will blog about soon.

My motivation for bringing his work up was a recent article he wrote for The New Yorker, entitled "Late Bloomers". If you have 5-10 minutes to spare, click on the link and have a read.

The article investigates society's habit of equating genius with precocity. it is often recalled how Mozart was composing music at the age of five and wrote his "breakthrough" Piano Concerto No.9 in E-flat Major at the
age of twenty-one. Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, at the age of twenty-six (how inspiring yet how depressing), need I say more? He drew upon the work of an economist called David Galenson, who approached this subject scientifically... I will not spoil except to say that his conclusions are very interesting.

Having forwarded the article to a few friends, it sparked up the question: "If you could be any figure in history, who would you be and why?"

What a great question! Although... strictly speaking it is two questions, Cilla Black never realised this so I doubt others will kick up a fuss. It just occured to me... while we are on such a digression- what a brilliant question for Blind Date- I think you could interpret alot from someones answer to this.

I struggled to provide an answer, after all, how can one compare both between generations, often millenia, and between subject fields as varied as philosophy, science, literature, art, sport, etc... after being denied the request to provide multiple answers, each pertaining to a different field in a similar manner to the Nobel prizes, I initially reluctantly and later affirmatively gave my answer... Charles Darwin.

At first sight, perhaps not the most exciting of answers, but lacking a better way to approach the question, I chose to ask myself: what single figure in human history has contributed the most to humanity overall?

He answered one of the greatest questions that will ever be asked of a human being: where did we all come from? With the acquired detachment of four or five generations and with the distortion of hindsight, it is hard to comprehend the
challenge that Darwin faced. In addition, It is also hard to comprehend the breath and depth of his findings- it impacted virtually every area of academia- specifically theology. Without such a discovery I imagine our lives, particularly within politics and leadership would be very different.

so.. that's my answer. who would you be?

postscript: The Tipping Point was, like Blink, very interesting. Unfortunately I found Outliers a bit stale. I recognised the formula used in Blink and The Tipping Point but this time it seemed a touch contrived. It still had moments of intrigue but the overall message was not as interesting as prior books- it essentially tells us that amazingly successful people are borne not from innate natural talent, but the combination of enough talent, good luck and lots and lots of hard work. Good but not great.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Amazing envelopes

I read this great little piece on Harriet Russell in The Telegraph (Horatia Harrod). I copied it below.

As family traditions go, it's unusual. But Harriet Russell is only the latest in her family to seek to amaze and befuddle the men and women of the Royal Mail. Her great-great-great grandfather, Henry Ponsonby, was an eminent Victorian - a veteran of the Crimean War, private secretary to the Queen - who also had a hobby of embellishing the envelopes of the letters he sent with whimsical pictures. The addresses would appear as signposts in snowstorms or as huge envelopes shouldered by tiny people.

Russell's approach was more challenging. Over the course of a year, from her flat in Glasgow, she sent herself 130 envelopes with addresses in the form of anagrams, crosswords, tests for colour blindness, dot-to-dot puzzles, cartoons. The first one she sent was in mirror writing, and when it arrived back at her flat - in the same time it takes for a normal letter to arrive - she knew that somewhere at the Glasgow Mail Centre, someone had enjoyed her work. So she pressed on.

Although she worried about the project at times - 'I thought I might get a letter saying, please stop wasting our time by doing this,' she told me - there were many sustaining little victories. She never met any of her accomplices at the Post Office, but they seemed to be enjoying the game. The crossword she sent out was returned, filled-in, with the proud comment on the back, 'Solved by the Glasgow Mail Centre'. And ultimately only 10 of the letters she sent didn't make it back, among them a particularly testing anagrammatic one, and several that lacked a postcode (the key to getting any letter delivered, she learnt).

The man who reads dictionaries by Tom Geoghegan

From the BBC news website:

Ammon Shea spent a year reading the Oxford English Dictionary - 20 volumes, 21,730 pages and 59 million words - and he rates poring over a dictionary as enriching as reading a novel. Why?

The prospect of talking to a man who reads dictionaries for fun prompts a sudden vocabulary-insecurity complex and a fear that every word he utters might sound like a painful medical condition.

But thanks to Ammon Shea's belief that long words only hinder conversations, there's no need to consult any dictionaries while he clearly explains his eccentric hobby. "I'm not against big words per se or fancy or obscure words, obviously I love them, but I'm opposed to using them for their own sake," he says. "If words are to form a communication, you use them as a tool to communicate to people and it's pointless to intentionally use a word that no-one else knows."

Mr Shea, a 37-year-old former furniture remover in New York, has spent 12 months conquering what he describes as the Everest of dictionaries, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), by ploughing through 20 volumes weighing a total of 137lbs.

In the process, he became the Morgan Spurlock of lexicologists, devouring words for eight to 10 hours a day, which caused him severe headaches, deteriorating eyesight and injuries to his back and neck. So why bother? "I've always enjoyed reading dictionaries and they are far more interesting than people give them credit for. And I think everything you find in a great book you would find in a great dictionary, except for the plot.

"All the normal emotions - grief, happiness and loss - exist in a dictionary but not necessarily in the order that you would think." If you come across a word like "remord" (to recall with a touch of regret) it's impossible to read that word without thinking of things that you regret yourself, he says, or to read "unbepissed" (not having been urinated on) without a chuckle.

"Knowing what to call something makes me more aware of that thing. For instance, it's not terribly useful for me to know that [the sound of] leaves rustled by the trees is a psithurism.
"I don't want to walk down the street with my girlfriend saying: 'Listen, there's a psithurism.' But knowing it means I pay more attention to it."

Similarly, knowing that "undisonant" is the adjective to describe the sound of crashing waves and that "apricity" is the warmth of the winter sun brings these things more often to mind.

"It's not easy to use them in conversation and so I enjoy them for their own sake. They are like one-word poems." Turning page after page of unfamiliar words made him sometimes feel like he was reading another language, he says. That was dispiriting but also intriguing, because it showed how rich and powerful the English language is.

But absorbing so much made Mr Shea lose his grasp on his normal vocabulary. He recalls being fascinated when reading the definition for the word "glove" before he realised it was a word he already knew.

"That happened frequently. I guess it gave me a useless large vocabulary and in the short-term I lost my normal vocabulary. I would go to the shop and forget the word for milk. Momentarily I'm looking for the cold, white stuff."

Mr Shea is not alone in his love of dictionaries. WH Auden waxed lyrical about them and Arthur Scargill said his father would read one every day because his life depended on the power to master words.

Thousands of avid Scrabble players read dictionaries looking for words, especially those with a high-scoring J, Q, X or Z, says Elaine Higgleton, editorial director of Collins Dictionaries. And crossword fans devour dictionaries for the same reason.

"We also have people writing to us who have been very interested in obscure words and obscure definitions.

"A student in Iraq was trying to learn English and he sat down trying to learn every word in the dictionary, starting at the beginning with A and working all the way through.
My father still reads the dictionary everyday. He says your life depends on your power to master words

"It's probably not the best way to learn English, and you'd learn many more than you would need."

But dictionaries are a wonderful source of learning about the origins of the English language, she says, and especially the Greek and Latin roots to many of the words. Collins, which records everyday language rather than all known words, is involved in a campaign to save some of the lesser-used words from being edited out of its future editions. Stephen Fry, for instance, has championed "fubsy", which means "short and stout".

"One of the nice things about dipping in and out of a dictionary is that although people are very comfortable with the vocabulary levels they have, there are some good fun words in there that offer an additional dimension of interest," says Ms Higgleton.

Some of Mr Shea's favourites garnered from the OED include "assy", which means behaving like an ass, and natiform, which means "buttock-shaped".

It's impossible to be intimidated by a dictionary that uses a word like assy, he says, and to pick one up and glance through one - rather than just opening one when in trouble with a word - can be a captivating experience.

And how much of what he has read has stayed between his ears? Throwing 10 semi-hard words ( from the OED at him, Shea correctly guessed five definitions. That's a considerably higher success rate than many of us would have scored, after reading 59 million words.